Thursday, April 16, 2020

Life after Corona

Someone called it a Pandemic. Some others called it an infodemic.

I had only thought of an epidemic but just look at what it has become? The dimensions it has assumed, the lessons it has taught? Whatever it was, my perceptions have suddenly acquired all the five senses, whereas earlier they were subsisting only on the visual and the occular. My understanding has gotten sensitized to things unseen. My mind has branched out to cover uncharted territories and discover precious recesses which had never been visited. Or recognized. Or applauded. And once it gets over, the wings of my consciousness shall yearn to fly and discover the hitherto uncharted world.

There is so much more than I had ever imagined! What was I doing? Being on the wrong side of fifty makes me feel as if I have wasted my time and now its short.

The newspapers at first confused me. “Infodemic” it was, though I don’t think there is a word like that in the dictionary. Yet.The television was screaming caution. And heaping allegations. Everyone looked pale. Ignorant. Scared.  How does novel Corona travel, how does it find a body and enter it, etc etc. How different is it from the earlier Coronas? Many people, many opinions and so many theories! Biases and prejudices. They said the novel Corona virus looks like a crown, hence the name given. That it is like nothing ever born before and has the power to kill. There have been several coronas before, but this is the deadliest. That no vaccine or cure is in sight. As a starter, the virus’ DNA mapping had to be done or was already done as a pre-condition for researching the vaccine that will safeguard us from this novel Corona.

And one day someone said the virus can be airborne too. Oh My God! So its floating around me, unseen! That got my goat. Wasn’t it enough that it could spread through contact? In school, we were always told to delicately sneeze and cough in our handkerchiefs; now this became the norm, nay, rule. And using sanitizers became the eighth vow of hindu marriage. “I shall always have a bottle of sanitizer at the stretch of a hand.”

The virus needed christening- COVID 19, it was called after much deliberation.

A once in hundred years phenomenon. A very humbling experience for all of humanity. Not because I was spared the infection which means I am destined to live a little bit longer, but because of what it implied- we witnessed nature coming back with a vengeance. Powerful as ever, it belittled us humans who had been presumptious enough to defy the tenets of harmonious co-existence.

Social distancing was born. Handshakes and hugs were forbidden. I realize now that a more apt term would have been physical distancing. Because socially we came much closer ( on media that is!) and often we saw hearts and hugs  and high fives floating around in abundance. Social media became a go to place for anyone who could not withstand physical distancing for very long. Relationships forgotten for years together took on a new meaning, propelled by media. Long distance love became the need of the hour. Whether it was sibling love, or love of the amorous kind, it helped us survive.

Talking about daily bread- we stocked up for a month- maybe even six weeks. The daily wage earners couldn’t stock up for a week even. When we shared our largesse with them they yielded with folded hands and bent heads. For food over which they have a birthright. ”If God then so clothes the grasses of the field;
Which today will live, and feed the oven tomorrow?
Will he not be much more ready to clothe you?
Men of little faith?” Did I not read this poem in school?
I felt like a heel robbing them of their birthright.

I grew up reading the world is racist. I now know it is not- we all stood up as one in our efforts to bid adieu to the novel Corona. Even the virus is not racist; neither are the animals and birds that have come out for a walk in the sun because the sun is shining brightly, like it used to, long time ago. Without that film of pollution clouding it. They have just walked out and flown into the “great wide beautiful wonderful world” as described by William Brighty Rands. As if it is their very own. And of course it is! Boundaries? What boundaries?

I have increasingly begun to believe that racism is in the minds of all those humans who have nothing better to do. And the boundaries are our own limiting pettiness and make us behave like ogres.

It is this pettiness that has begun to tell us to mess up other peoples’ worlds; not realizing that in fact, we are messing up our very own too. Do we still believe we can define your world or mine? Or is it simply ours, to preserve and cherish?

I read about the ravages of WW I and WW II because I wasn’t born then. But this I have seen and lived every minute of the struggle. I therefore see raw emotion taking over, superseding reason. It has not been as easy as racing through a text book by an eminent World History professor or a novel by Leon Uris.

A major shift in economic activity is foreseen. A slow and jittery start with many bugs along the way. I see a real feeling of security or lack of it, whatever we decide to choose, as against the bubble that we called our lifestyle just three months ago.

I guess, in the aftermath, we will have learnings facilitating our decisions- not even a small lesson will, hopefully, go unheeded and unnoticed. I see people, more guarded; more conscious of the situation, of each other. I am hoping the warmth continues. Though mostly they have all gone back to discussions on nail biting elections and back biting politics. And a post-mortem of how the COVID-19 could have been better handled. Also to the vital question about whether we can call it W W III. Literally, who won?  Sad end to the virulent flamboyant novel Corona.

There is an increased respect of the curers; the doctors, the researchers, healthcare workers. What would we have done without them? They set forth, like true soldiers with no fear for their lives, to protect the people of a country, not the political boundaries or the disputed territories. They protected lives to the best of their means and ability.

Househelp is asking for a raise. And I just feel like giving them more than they are asking for. They have proved how precious they are by their very absence. And it was me who asked them to stay home; they were willing to come to work amid all the exposure because they had to earn their daily bread.

I need to get back to waking up on time in the mornings! The “stay home” made us all unmindful of timings. All except a few very determined ones lost their routine but did their chores. Whenever, wherever. However.

I might also need to use my alarm on the hand phone for a reminder to unlatch  the front door every morning. These days we don’t step out , you see, so the latch stays in place.

Life after Corona? Very simply put- minimalistic. The needs reduced to bare minimum, because after all, did we not survive? The paraphernalia did not help us combat the virus; the absence of paraphernalia did.

Did I wear my stylish new heels while staying home? So do I need to wear them now when going out? Of course not. The keds are sufficient.

I just manicured my hands and feet this morning in order to feel more beautiful. But during the reign of the Corona, working hands looked most beautiful. I miss them now.

There is a nagging fear of what will happen if the novel Corona comes back. Que sera sera, what will be, will be.

Life will never be the same again. At least for us who met the deadly Corona face to face. Handshake to handshake. Hug to hug, the virus was always intruding for these three months ever since we found it wrecking havoc in China.

For those who will read only the stories later on, this might be a historic once in 100 years phenomenon that nature creates for a clean up long overdue. The muck that builds up is a necessary evil accompanying irresponsible human behavior where selfish humanity gets trampled and compromised because nature is playing up and we do not know how to combat the wrath. In all probability it will enjoy the same status as the Spanish flu. Maybe the SARS and MERS and Ebola come close but COVID-19 takes it away.

I had started getting the feeling that I had arrived; now it is clear that I have a long long way to go. And I don’t even know whether I will reach or not. I am on the wrong side of fifty you see and don’t have much time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Siblings- blessings

I don’t remember a time when my sister wasn’t there around me. She was always there. Always. So you can say we are more like twins. Fraternal twins. Not defying the myth that twins are very similar, but suffice to say that we are not so same same.

My other sibling, my brother came ten years after I did, so I do remember a time when both of us sisters were like princesses and our parents were bringing us up in the hollow of their palms. When my brother came, it got a bit crowded on the palm so with a sigh of relief we realized that we were being weaned off the royal treatment to live like normal girls.

Now he was the prince and we the regents who were bringing him up. Our newfound status was that of assistants to our mother and we did it to the hilt. In fact, when my brother grew up to be 12, he was tall and thin, lanky is the right word. Often people would ask him, “Why are you so thin and lanky?” And he would reply with a twinkle in his eye, “I have my mother and two sisters around me all the time. So I get no place to grow sideways! I can only grow upwards!” Uff! How thankless could he be, considering that we stepped down from our princess status only to make room for him? The baby to whom we were little mothers? Well to compensate for the unkind jibe, we beat him up when mom wasn’t looking. Blessed with a superb sense of humour, he kept us smiling all the time. In fact, even now, whenever we meet, it is a riot; a treat to talk together and laugh together- gives us the stamina to take life head on.

Those days, his friends would call us bossy too! While it did not hurt us but sometimes we  sisters introspected and then convinced ourselves we were just being good big sisters. “Bah!” I said one day when one of his little boyfriends from the US came home and called us both “bossy girls!” “Wait till I get my hands on you, you little pappu!” And he told them not to meddle with me because I was dangerous!

Life was good and my sister and I were growing up fast! In school we used to braid our long black hair into two neat plaits with black ribbons and wore long john socks with our very practical buckled ballerina shoes. Our mother was very sure that despite our upbringing, we must get into the habit of taking care of our own basic chores like for example, washing socks and handkerchiefs and polishing shoes. She said no one will do it for anyone and knowing how lazy I could get, my sister was specially told that on no account must she wash mine.

The result was that I was always late for school, aggravated by the fact that I was most loathe to get up in the morning and then polish my shoes, hunt for a clean pair of socks, wash my handkerchief and iron it dry, etc.

So going back to the time we were in year two or three at school, we went through the Indo Pak war of 1971 which coincided with the liberation of East Bengal rechristened Bangladesh.  Our dad was summoned to be a part of the Civil Defence Team which would look after the city of Jabalpur during any extraordinary security threats to the people and the town. You see, Jabalpur was an important Cantonment and also had a couple of defence manufacturing establishments- the Gun Carriage Factory and the Ordinance Factory which was a plum target for the Air Raid guys. It was not easy to access by Infantry or any Army Battalion by virtue of its location in the Centre of India right on the Tropic of Cancer 231/2 degrees North.

So, I remember that all the residents of Jabalpur were told to paint their windows and door panes black. The wailing sirens from the Control Room would signal an approaching aircraft suspected of being loaded with a bomb which the enemy would try to drop strategically to destroy the defence establishments. There were no Google maps and no GPS then, so they had to be guided by the lights visible from their fighter planes. And so we had to run and switch off all the lights in the house, the streetlights would go off and then we would see our father off, speeding away on his Royal Enfield with dimmed headlight, to the Control Room. My mother would hold our hands tightly and we would sit huddled together in a corner of our big house waiting for the long siren announcing “all clear.” I remember my sister holding tightly on to my mother and I remember just screwing my eyes shut because I was afraid of the absolute dark. I can never forget the huddle and the touch- it took us through the crisis. We never got bombed and my father received the President’s Medal for Civil Defence Service during war. We were proud daughters and basked in reflected glory. As sisters, we still felt differently about so many things but agreed on this one.

In 1973, the Comet Kohoutek made an appearance after almost 150,000 years and was also seen in India. People would wake up early morning to see the star with a broom like tail which they believed would bring them lots of bad luck. The country was reeling under a depressed economic cycle and superstition was rife. My sibling and I would wish for all good things to happen because now we were growing up and realizing that positivity was necessary for all living things. We were truly growing up and how. By now we had learnt all about the solar system so we would scare our little brother and younger siblings of our friends by telling them fiendish stories about these planets- just cooking up scary bits by telling them how evil Saturn could get or how cruelly hot Mars was. Our storytelling capabilities were perfected by our Elocution teacher in school and we actually made some of the kids scream with fear! Such fun days they were!

In 1975, we had a lot of unrest and conflicting politics. We were still in middle school and my brother had started going to nursery school when the Government of India announced Emergency in the country. There was turmoil and sometimes schools closed down because security prohibited group meetings. Then I spent my time painting on the backs of old calendar pages- those days we used to have big poster size calendars with 12 pages for 12 months and I used my watercolors to express my angst. I don’t know if my sister appreciated what I painted, but she wasn’t rude either and concentrated on her studies.

 We both found our own ways of keeping busy though often I wasn’t able to understand how one could be busy studying when there was so much happening around us. But she was a good student and her report card said it all. I got the rhetorical comment “Dolly can do well but she is so distracted!” By 1977, the emergency was lifted and things got better. But my distractions increased because under the frenzied wave of indigenization Coke was taken off the shelves and Cadbury was threatened- both of which were our sustenance. My sister and I would lament and envied our cousins abroad who had all of this and more. And I continued to be distracted and she continued to score good marks!

Life then was not as hectic as it is now, so my parents had a leisurely social life. Often they would go visit friends. We had very little family in Jabalpur but had very close friends. Then my sister and I would sit together in the drawing room on the wooden sofa with cushions and have coffee and cake. That taste of coffee is precious; I have not come across anything so beautiful and so full of love as that coffee my sister used to make. And that cake which our father baked was and is the best yet. My father has since, passed on to the next life and my sister now dishes out exotic grub, but that coffee still lingers on my taste buds. And I have never been able to bake a cake even half as good.

And when I got married, my siblings made it a perfect occasion. I couldn’t have asked for more. Now both my siblings are married too, happy with their own families while we support each other enriched with the efforts and sensitivities of our spouses. I hope we make our mother proud of us. It is with joy and pride that I belong to my family and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

To Be or not to Be

I am there somewhere on a soft white beach, with the expansive blue green and sometimes cerulean ocean beckoning. When I walk on the sand it feels soft as cotton wool. The dolphins are coming to me and inviting me to their home in the lagoon.  A larger than life mermaid watches from a distance and enjoys my discomfort about entering the very lively water. She smiles imperiously but says nothing. She continues to stare at the waves chasing each other as if they are playing catch me if you can. Everything is so alive, so full of movement and the good old joi de vivre. Even the blue and yellow striped sea perch turn up their noses at me when they see me struggling to stay on the sand which, by the way, is also moving under my bare feet each time a wave comes and kisses them. I hold on to my sun glasses because if they fall off and the waves take them away, then I will be blinded by daylight. The sunshine is very strong and I am constantly screwing my eyes in order to control my excited pupils, so the sun glasses help me some.

In a split second, I decide I want to travel. Somehow. Anyhow. By hook or by crook. Worst case scenario, I am ready to become a travel guide with a local travel agency. My formal education includes a Masters degree in Management which for the time being, will take a backseat. But travel I will.

Now I am an executive with Travelbug Tours, without a degree in Travel and Tourism but consumed with an ambition to serve this industry. I have come out of my university with a burning passion to travel, rather than manage organizations. Most of the time, I do not know whether I am coming or going, especially when these pretty ladies from all over the world, look at me with their kohl lined eyes and bat their mascaraed eyelashes when asking about the weather; I am totally floored. Just so delightedly confused! Their own menfolk don’t seem to notice how irresistibly charming their girls are- I wish they would ask me.

My joy of travelling gets really stretched to the point of disillusionment when I run to the check in counter, and then run back to my customers and then run to the hotel and in between shout myself hoarse in a minimum of three or four languages trying to tell them what is what. While setting out on a 5 nights 6 days trip to Sri Lanka this morning with a 70 strong group, a funny thing happens. Seeing so many of us, the airline opens up a counter especially for my group which I think is rather nice. But what happens after that is not so nice and I hang my head in shame. 20 names are not found on the computer at the specially opened check in counter. How come? They say the tickets have not been issued at all. With authority and conviction they blame the travel agency I work for. Why? I have to somehow sort this out. How can we have 20 dropouts for no fault of ours?

I scratch my head and rub my eyes and try to pacify my irate dropouts. Some even start demanding a refund! Talk about jumping the gun! Sigh! They have no faith in me and seem to think it’s all my mistake. Deep inside, I am already wondering where I went wrong. No, speak to the Supervisor, my aching head says. There is some gap. We speak, and we decide to finish with the people in waiting line and then sort this out. It takes me close to 45 mins to check my list with that of the Airline but finally we are all done. And would you believe it? The confusion is because the names are not spelt correctly, Kyaw has become Chou and Ong has become Wong. Koh is Ko and Mya is Mia. Preety has become Pretty! Who to blame? But they all have tickets now so I guess I have narrowly escaped an assault. And thank God I will not be sacked.

All in the nick of time because the boarding gate has started announcing names of people who haven’t boarded yet, and they are all mine!

Once inside the aircraft, swapping begins! You know, friends want to sit with friends, hmm? I want to run and hide, but I know I have to deal with this. The passengers who are not part of my group are already frowning and bracing for a noisy ride (maybe turbulent too, looking at the weather!) to destination Colombo. The pursers and air hostesses are giving me sympathetic glances and I hate them all. I need a cold towel.

I am unable to decide whether to sit in the front and bear the full brunt of the impact in case of a mid-air collision or to sit in the rear and be at risk of being swept away if the tail unit disintegrates and falls off…. Intrepid traveler, is it? Chanting my salvation mantra I sit on 26D, really the approximate middle middle, and hope to be saved. I have places to go and things to do, so minimize the risk, my conscience tells me. The world needs you, it says.

With these positive thoughts I drift into blissful slumber, but the children won’t leave me. I have three sling bags to look after. And five pairs of shoes. They are all in the water after presuming that I was born to look after their shoes and bags. And five children are pestering me to go play a frisbee game. My eyes are on that bottle of wine which everyone is enjoying. It’s one of my mid-priced favorites and I bought it for the group I am travelling with. But it looks like I am invisible- no one seems to notice me and offer me some wine.

I wake up with a start to hear the landing announcement. I missed out on the snack and the drink too! What a shame! Shepherding my 70 strong brood, I thankfully step into the Volvo bus that will take us places. Lunch is two hours away and I haven’t had breakfast.

Sigh! Did I ask for it?

Bits of Paper

I was tired of receiving pink slips. Even in my dreams, I would find these little slips of paper floating around, jeering at me, ready to tear me to bits. I would wake up, and then find that my manuscript was still on my writing desk and hadn’t seen the Editors pen yet. I would then screw my eyes shut tight, waiting for sleep and oblivion from the horrors of rejection.

Soon, to my utter dismay, I started seeing these even with my eyes tightly closed. I  started hating the color pink. In fact, one day I found myself hallucinating when I saw pink roses, and believe me, this was the most embarrassing moment of my life. In the hotel lobby, where I had gone for an official dinner, the array of pink roses sent me swooning to this stern lady Editor who threw my manuscript at my face and laughed out loud with disdain, “So, dear writer! Go back and learn a thing or two about authoring, and then come back to me with your story rewritten. I promise I will read it again.” I recoiled with the curt opinion, and came to with a squirm when someone jabbed me- and then heard someone asking me, “are you alright? Can I help you feel more comfortable? Is this the first time you fainted, or have you fainted before?” Obviously, I must have been looking ill. Like something with disheveled hair and sweaty palms that the cat dragged home. “Shall we call a doctor? The hotel must have a Resident Doctor on call…” I smiled, despite the recent hallucination, and plodded on with the martini that someone had put back in my hand. It felt weird and then I realized I was drinking martini in a plastic tumbler. I sat up and saw a mess of shattered glass and some sticky splashed liquid, which was probably my first martini before I swooned. I understood. Did not protest.

So this was my life, with the ebb and flow of thoughts, emotions and written pieces and also rejected pieces. After these seven years of authorhood, I had two prominent piles of paper on my table now- the “written” and the “rejected”. There was also a “pending” pile which had to be completed and awaited its fate. A small thin insignificant file of “accepted” sitting forlorn in one corner of the 4x6 feet work table (the biggest piece of furniture in the house) was my only solace.  And of late, I had started planning on starting a filing system for these pink slips too! Some publishers were going digital and accepting correspondence by email. Otherwise the embarrassment of having so many pink slips thrust in my hand would have obliterated me by now. I could almost imagine the grinning editor, the disdainful editor, the cynical editor, all owners of the e mail ids whom I had been writing to, and who just might open a goldmine for me, after they stopped making fun of me.

On one such day, when I was trying to figure out what was going wrong, someone came home. A ragged looking man called Stan, who kept saying, “I am the King maker.” You know what that means? It means he is very powerful. He can make or mess up your life. I hated him; just like I hate all people who show off. Reena had brought him home for a meeting. Reena was another one- I had told her many times to stay off my passion. I would manage to get my writing published; but she was constantly looking for someone who could get me published. And now Stan the King maker (read Queen maker) was here. Self-consciously I walked across to him to shake hands and offer him a seat in my home. Peremptorily, he offered me a chair instead. What guts!

Without much ado, he told me what a fabulous guy he was, with friends in the Government, Army, Navy and Airforce and also in the Mafia. And by the way, also in publishing. I widened my eyes appropriately and kept saying wow! Till my eyes started hurting and my lips started chafing.

“Time for some coffee….” I sang out loud, when he was in the middle of telling me how he had got an author to sell 5 million copies of his book translated in English. “The author was not so sure but I convinced him about the translation, and see what magic happened!” He was almost bursting out of his skin with the pride of his achievement.

Coffee took long to come; and the long noisy slurps alternating with loud crackles of cream crackers served in Celadon china, made me sick. I took Reena aside and threatened her. “Take him away before I kick him out of here. What a guy! How did you even begin to think that I might need his services?”

Stan sat there and bragged and slurped some coffee and noisily munched some crackers and then bragged some more. It seemed like all he could do was discuss himself. He spoke about how he decided to hang up his boots at 39 and spend his life helping people like me. “But why did you have to do that?” “Just so that no one would suffer like I did when I was trying to publish my book of verse.” Champion of the underdog, is he? “Oh, really, so you have been published already?” I asked him, with genuine curiosity, overcoming my first cynical impulse. A spate of name throwing and ‘been there done that’ kind of anecdotes followed, leaving me confounded and sorry that I even asked him. “So may I be guided to buy a kindle version of your book? What’s the title and who is the publisher?” I interrupted him just as he was embarking on another ego-trip down memory lane.

Reena continued speaking of him in glowing terms and in a hastily whispered aside she told me that obnoxious though he sounded, he was actually very well connected. It took a lot of convincing but finally when the coffee got over and he could slurp no more, I stood up abruptly and excused myself saying I had an urgent call to make. It was my house so I couldn’t be more rude. Hastily, I printed out a copy of the synopsis, gave it to him and wished he would go away.

I did not expect he would come back for anything except the money. Would not deliver any positive results either. And the synopsis by now, had become public property so I was not risking anything. Spinning yarns, anyway was my hobby, though not necessarily my bread and butter. And for this yarn, the embellishments could be changed if Stan tried his tricks. But I doubted he had the brains to even begin to read the paper I thrust in his hand. So for me, he was out of my life as quickly as he had come.

But my manuscript was still unread, unheard and unsung! The travails of a budding writer continued to haunt me and would not be slaked without blood. And then there were friends who would keep calling me and asking, “Have you found a publisher? Oh, you poor woman! Working so hard and burning the midnight oil; these people don’t have any respect for hard work….”
“Oh! How come no one is taking an interest in your book? You know you actually write very well- amazing language and such precise grammar.”
“Its possible that your story may not be very exciting? So what about tweaking it a little bit here and there? Adding some romance and some zing to it?”
“Hey you know what? Just get some well known literary genius to write the foreword or even a recommendation? You know those back covers full of good things about the book you just read or are planning to read?”

Feverish and consumed, I understood that each advice translated into an umbrella statement, “Never mind the pink slip. Never give up!”

Honest to God, I tried. And never gave up. There was a day in my life when, as I sat for breakfast, I noticed a pink piece of paper under the table mat. I screamed as if I had seen a ghost. “Will thou hound me here as well?” The housekeeper came running out and kind of pacified me. I dared not look at the dining table lest I see that pink paper again. But the evil woman dug it out and handed it to me. “This is the bill from the laundry. Give me the money so I can go and pick up the blankets.”

I went to see my Professor at the University where I had completed my Masters in Economics. Won three Gold Medals. Was offered a Faculty position as a career. I had spurned all that and now my Prof, on hearing my life story, simply said, “Talent is wasted.” That’s it. “Talent is wasted.” Such loaded words! Such famous words….. everyone who is someone has had somebody say that to her. Determined, I plod on, in search of the someone I will be. Kiss my hand, someone.